(NewsNation) — Social media sites have “a profound risk of harm” to kids’ mental health and well-being, America’s top doctor said today — a contributor if not instigator for the mental health crisis affecting millions of young people.
The surgeon general’s report laid out more than 20 recommendations to protect kids’ mental health on social media today, ranging from legislating (and asking) technology companies to be more transparent, to families creating digital free zones in their homes.
While a good first step, many parents, watchdogs and advocates say legislation and oversight is not moving fast enough to make a dent in the 1 in 5 kids who seriously consider suicide each year, or the millions more suffering from severe depression, anxiety, disordered eating or other serious mental illness.
“Asking children to be responsible for something that is so addictive, that is so powerful, that is so pervasive, that’s irresponsible,” said Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer for Bark, an app that allows parents to monitor their kids’ phones.
“Unless (tech companies) are held accountable, legally, and financially, they have no incentive to right wrongs,” she continued.
NewsNation spoke with experts about what parents need to know about the guidelines — and how you can proactively protect your child.
Creating a digital healthy home
The surgeon general’s report lays out several steps parents can take to reduce the impact of social media on kids.
That includes creating “digital-free zones,” such as at the dinner table or an hour before bed. Other solutions include monitoring your kids’ use with an app like Bark, or install filters on your home’s Wi-Fi to filter out hateful or explicit content.
Krista Boan, co-founder of the nonprofit Screen Sanity, suggests talking with your kids about what your family values should be — and explaining why online restrictions or choices support those values and goals.
“Do we want to be about serving others? Do we want it to be about good sportsmanship? Do we want to be about connection?” she said. “Then we can set up that as the framework for all of our technology use: Is this opportunity and technology supporting the thing that I value? Or is it getting in the way?”
Ultimately, don’t let your kids go where you haven’t, Jordan says. Spend some time by yourself on a site before deciding whether to let a child make an account.
Parents: Look for the signs
It’s important for parents to be prepared for both the short- and long-term ramifications of harmful interactions online, Jordan said.
“Good kids are going to make bad choices. It’s really not a matter of if, but when your child is going to be exposed to some of the worst things that humanity has to offer,” she said. “Digital interactions and online behavior, when they become problematic, can carry over into your child’s real life and that’s where you’re really going to need to pay attention.”
And it’s the real-life behavior parents should look for. That includes kids being more withdrawn, isolated, anxious or agitated than usual; if they’re hiding their screens from you when you sit next to them; and if they’re not hanging out with real life friends or don’t want to do their favorite activities anymore.
“If you feel that your child has changed in any way, shape or form, pay attention to that. And know that more often than not, the reason why lives bury deep in their digital signal,” she said.
Burden relies on legislators and Big Tech
Yet the “entire burden of mitigating the risk of harm of social media cannot be placed on the shoulders of children and parents,” the surgeon general says, comparing the need for guideposts to the regulations on other products kids use, like a toy or medication.
The report calls for legislators to mandate Big Tech firms become more transparent in what data they’re collecting and how they’re using it; as well as developing age-appropriate standards.
“Tech is not bad, but it is unregulated. And our children are bearing the brunt of very impactful negative harm to their physical and mental state,” Jordan said. “The surgeon general, the president, CEOs of tech companies have got to do more, and they got to do better, and they’ve got to do it faster. Because kids are being harmed every single day.”
And there’s still a lot we don’t know — something that will require continual funding and research, experts say.
What will change take?
These guidelines come as the nation is struggling to regulate an industry changing faster than legislation can keep up. TikTok’s CEO has testified before congress, and Montana banned the app outright, over concerns that the Chinese government is collecting Americans’ data.
Numerous reports in recent months have highlighted how severely addicting this technology can be on developing brains. A damning Washington Post investigation revealed Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, knew about and downplayed the serious risks to teens.
Many experts doubt this alone will put the pressure needed for technology companies to behave better — or lawmakers to better enforce it.
“There’s a huge need for legislation and protection against the kind of manipulation that is happening to an entire generation at the hands of tech giants who are profiting off of our kids,” Boan said.